Goh Chok Tong’s speech defending high ministerial pay and defence budget at grassroots event

On Friday, local news platform MustShareNews shared an audio recording of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong who turned down a suggestion to lower ministerial salaries or to lower the defence budget in order to better support elderly in Singapore,

In the conversation, 70-year-old Abdul Aziz shared his concerns about issues about elderly being forced to work just to survive and asked if Singapore could have some sort of an elderly pension fund and suggested that the defence budget to be cut a bit and also perhaps 10 per cent on the ministerial pay.

When queried if the recording was indeed true, ESM Goh had his staff to clarify that the recording was taken during a dialogue at the South-East District conference on Thursday (2 Aug) at NTUC Centre and provided the transcript of the conversation. When compared with the recording shared on Facebook, it is shown to be truncated.

For the benefit of understanding the whole context of ESM Goh’s reply, below is the transcript of the whole conversation between the 70-year-old Singaporean, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, and ESM Goh.

Abdul Aziz (from Braddell Heights RC): I am 70 years old, so I am really concerned about issues that are about the elderly. Unfortunately, I would say that the bad picture which has been painted is that the elderly have been forced to work, cleaning toilets, serving tables, just to survive. And the example that Dr Maliki said (of a senior working just because she wants to, not because she needs to), perhaps it is the exception rather than the whole. I think not many people will believe you if you say that elderly work because they want to mix, because they want to do exercise. Perhaps they work because they need to work. So in this case, may I just suggest that perhaps can we have some sort of an elderly pension fund, for the elderly. We will have an appropriate means test and all that, to make sure it is not being abused. And Mayor will ask me how do we fund this fund? Perhaps, maybe can I say we cut a bit on the defence, one F-15 maybe can pay for the whole fund. Or perhaps even the Ministers with the million-dollar salaries, can we perhaps cut by 10 per cent in order to fund this fund? These are just my suggestions. Thank you very much.

In response to Mr Abdul Aziz’s question, Grassroots Adviser Lim Biow Chuan said:

Firstly, there is Silver Support. I think you know there is Silver Support, and Silver Support does help quite a number of our seniors. I am really unsure that we should be too hard on elderly who want to work. To me, if Singaporeans, if you are low-income, the Government does take quite good care of you. There are actually many many schemes to help look after those who are poor. Now if you are not poor, and you want to work, I personally think it is a good thing, because if not, then what do you expect the elderly to do at home?

I always tell seniors whom I meet, go and do something, whether it is volunteer work, whatever. Because if you stay at home, the chances of you getting dementia is quite high. When my father was alive, he was running a fruit stall. Now he runs it in a very poor manner and he loses money every month. So then he decided one day that he would sublet it out and take some rental income. And so he went home and then he stayed at home. After a few months, I looked at my father and I thought his situation was deteriorating. So I told him why don’t you take back the fruit stall, I will pay for your every month losses, because to me it is cheaper to pay for your every month losses than eventually pay for the dementia medical expenses.

So he runs the stall, he just sits there and the fruits rot after a while. I was happy because he meets people, he talks to people, and it keeps him going. He doesn’t have to go and collect cardboard boxes, but the reality is that if he does nothing, I am more worried. My sense is always that we shouldn’t always look to the government to solve the issues of the elderly. It is every child’s responsibility to look after their parents, because your parents looked after you when you are young. To all those who are getting elderly, I hope that you don’t think that your children should not look after you. These are their responsibilities. And this is what filial piety is all about.

Now, if for whatever reason your children can’t look after you, come and talk to us. We have many schemes where we will be able to help to those who are lower income to look after themselves. But if you look at people and they are working, whether as a cleaner and all that, don’t feel embarrassed about that. My mum, about 10 years ago, worked in a coffeeshop as a cleaner. Because she is bored at home. And she asked me, would it embarrass you? I said no, I mean it is a decent job, you want to go and work, I won’t stop you from working. Because if you think it is a decent job, so be it. She is not robbing someone, she is not relying on charity, she wants to work as a coffeeshop cleaner because she gets to do something, she mixes with people, she is happy and I am happy. So now that she is older, she is retired.

But I honestly feel let’s not be too harsh or too judgmental on elderly who need to work. So if you do meet people whom you think need help, come and talk to us. We will be able to assess them and we will be able to render assistance. Whether we should fund that through 10 per cent cut from MINDEF, I think we better let the Senior Minister of State (referring to SMS Maliki Osman) answer.

SMS Maliki Osman: We will get ESM to share his perspective first.

(ESM asks for the mic to be passed to Abdul Aziz)

ESM Goh: I want to ask you, first of all, if the old lady and old men do not clean the tables, who are going to clean the tables?

Abdul Aziz: We have maybe youngsters or students who want to earn.

(ESM Goh turns to young people in the audience: “Do any of you want to stop education to clean tables? Any of you? Please put up your hands.”)

ESM Goh: This is a very populist kind of question, which will get you votes and make you President of Singapore! So it is a serious populist question which I want to debunk. Who is going to clean the table for you? Students won’t do it. Shall we have foreign workers to clean the tables?

Abdul Aziz: May I suggest, maybe we have to ask ourselves, why is it that nobody wants to clean tables? That is because the pay is so measly. Minimum wage pay, perhaps we can get people to clean the tables.

ESM Goh: Ok, how much should we pay a cleaner to clean the tables? $1,000?

(ESM Goh turns to audience: “Will you clean tables for $1,000? Please put up your hands.”)

ESM Goh then said:

No, I am serious, $1,000, who is going to clean the tables? Somebody must clean the tables. I am not suggesting old folks should clean the tables. I say give it to contractors, who will then employ people to clean the tables. Contractors, who do they look for? First and foremost, they want foreign workers. If you give them foreign workers, we end up with foreign workers cleaning tables, they don’t want old people. But are you going to allow more foreign workers in Singapore, just to clean tables? Those who are in support, please put up your hands, then you end up with another 100,000 foreign workers to clean tables.

If you are from India, Bangladesh, $1,000 to clean tables, thank you very much, please let me clean more tables. So contractors have no choice but to employ older ones. We feel sorry for that. How do we help them? Well, we have this income supplement. If the cleaners who clean the table are paid a standard market wage, a bit low from our point of view, there is this wage supplement to up their salary. If you feel sorry for them, we can have a minimum wage for old people, we can do that. Does it work? How much is the minimum wage? Well, we do that, your hawker price will go up, please don’t complain. Are you going to complain that the hawker prices are going up because they are paying more to the workers? That is my point. The second point which Mr Lim has addressed, to some of these people, a job is very important, not just the pay.

If you say please give them a pension, that is again a very popular idea, and there are some societies which actually do that, when you reach a certain age, you get pension for life. Somebody must pay for the pension. And you got it right. Take it from somewhere else. Had you suggested to up GST by 2 per cent and give them the pension, I would have applauded you. Seriously. Because you are then taxing the whole society to support older ones. But you did not. You said cut from defence, 1 per cent is enough. And on top of that, you said cut Ministers’ salaries. That is very populist. I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government, because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that?

And where do we get our future office holders from? From the private sector? I have tried for the last election. Two of them, earning $5 million per month, $10 million per month (sic – ESM meant per year). To be a Minister for $1 million? No, no, my family is not happy with (unclear). Those approached say money is not the issue. But if you earn $5 million, $10 million, and you pay at least $1 million, many people would come, but not from the private sector. But maybe some you can get.

Edwin Tong, he is a Senior Counsel, he earns more than $2 million. PM asked him to be a Minister of State – one quarter (salary). He came to see me. He said, at this stage of his life, he has got a house, he has got a mother-in-law to support, a father-in-law to support, his own parents and so on, what should he do? So I asked him, Edwin, what were you in politics for? (He said) Here to serve. So I said you’ve got to serve, well, you know between $2 million and perhaps half a million, later on you hopefully become a full Minister, $1 million, you have to decide which is more important. So Edwin told me his job in politics is to serve. He said yes, I will take on, and he felt very strongly that he could do the job. But now we dare not pay Ministers a good wage.

To anyone of us here, $1 million is a lot of money. So where do you want to get your Ministers from? From people who earn only $500,000 a year, whose capacity is $500,000 a year? So (when) I look for Ministers, anybody who wants to be paid more than half a million, I won’t take him. You are going to end up with very very mediocre people, who can’t even earn a million dollars outside to be our Minister. Think about that. Is it good for you, or is it worse for us in the end?

Then you said take from MINDEF. Well, MINDEF we cap it at 6 per cent, we don’t spend 6 per cent of GDP. Take it from MINDEF. Do we take it from national servicemen, pay them less? Or we buy less weapons, your weapons? So you think through. If you say you know National Service, don’t pay National Servicemen that well, take from there to pay your older people. Yeah, maybe that is doable, because we are taking from the young to pay them. But if I say cut, don’t buy a submarine, ok maybe we do that. Don’t buy your F-16, F-35, don’t buy your radar. You have done National Service, you know that defending Singapore is defending a point. You are not defending a territory of 300 square miles, 3,000 square miles, 10,000 square miles, you are defending a point. If you defend a point, you need to have advanced radar. Our neighbours don’t need it. But a plane from a neighbouring country can come to Singapore within two to three minutes to drop a bomb here, if we are fighting one another. Have you got time to run to the nearest stronghouse, bomb shelter? Have you got time to run? By the time the siren comes up, before you can run, the plane is already here. We need an advanced warning system. That costs money.

Well in the end you say why, we are so small anyway, we can’t defend ourselves, why defend, just spend the money on all these. If you can’t defend yourselves, are you going to get the investors over here? I put money over here, there is no guarantee about my investments, I won’t put money here. Are you going to get the economic growth? You are going to have unemployment. You won’t get growth. Where do you get your money from to pay old folks like you and me? Think about that. So there is a whole system.

So the point I am making is, don’t just ask populist questions. Before you ask such populist questions – just take from here and there to help old people – where would the money come from? If it is from the younger generation for the older ones, yes, we are prepared to do it. Your idea is not wrong, we must do something for the older ones. Silver Support, some kind of a scheme that we can work on later on. But how to fund it? That is what I am hitting at. It is not the idea of supporting older ones. I think that is correct. There are many retirees, they haven’t got funds, they need to be supported. But how do you fund it, you see. That is key. How to fund it for the future? Make it sustainable? Once you have a scheme to pay anybody over 65 a certain minimum wage, you can’t take it away, you’ve got to think of how to raise taxes to pay that. Ok so one part of your question is very good, but your suggestion is very bad on how to solve the problem.

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